The Hive

Charles Burns in color! It continues to be a whole new glorious world for the Burns fan. The Hive, the second in a trilogy of luxe comic books that began with 2010’s X’ed Out, revels in both the associative and gross-out potential of color.

The volume opens with a grid of purple and black rectangles, the purple ones stacked in pyramid formation so that they approximate the shape of a hive, which looms over the decrepit quasi-Middle Eastern city wherein our protagonist has found himself waylaid after chasing a ghost cat through a portal in his mom’s basement. Never mind that it’s a shade borrowed from somewhere else in the story – from our hero Doug’s deceased father’s robe, which he pulls on in a moment of distraction before leaving behind life as he knows it.

“Dreaming with eyes open, shuffling images,” Doug recites in a not-too-warmly received Burroughs homage in a punk club, in X’ed Out. It’s the clearest description of what we encounter in this unusual narrative.

Doug is trying to process an unspecified trauma, perhaps due to drug abuse, injury, mental illness or grief. His girlfriend Sarah has disappeared. His dad has wasted away. It would be safe to say that a range of looming crises are competing to send him over the edge.

It’s the late seventies. While the series pays tribute to the nascent punk scene, Doug is getting perilously close to an Elvis-style exit -- all those red pills are making him bloated and sad, with a propensity to burden strange women with his relationship issues.

In the first installment we watched Doug, his head bandaged, trying to make sense of his surroundings as Nitnit, aka Johnny 23, in a dusty, crumbling city beholden to a towering hive. In part two he’s more or less joined its ranks of drones, having gotten a job pushing a maintenance cart, distributing reading material and supplies to the sad eyed “breeders” (aka women) confined to their beds.

Colleen, the girlfriend from X’ed Out, reappears as a distressed breeder in The Hive named Lily. She swells with what I’d guess to be one of those huge red and white splotched eggs under her hospital blanket. The story (and Doug’s subconscious) quickly moves on to another breeder, a quasi-Sarah named Suzy, who is seeking the missing issues of her favorite romance comic.

The cast of characters found in Nitnit land includes mutant, decrepit or aged quasi-ethnic shopkeepers and loiterers, or otherwise quasi-human piglet men and humanoid lizard drones. The creases, scars and raw wounds on their hyper-specific faces contrasts sharply with Nitnit’s smooth (Caucasian) mask face, fixed in an expression of frazzled dismay.

The Hive references the pre-PC ethnic caricatures of Tintin comics and presents an Orientalist fantasy realm that is confusing and disorienting on purpose. In Nitnit, words, faces, roles and customs are indecipherable. Our comfort in recognition is partially dismantled. It looks almost like a place we could inhabit, and yet that only makes it more troubling as we strain to find a way to make sense of the gaps, where it betrays us. Johnny 23’s confusion is ours. Aggro lizard dudes berating you at every turn certainly don’t help.

Back in “reality,” Doug and Sarah love and lose each other in dreams, digressions, reminiscences and sub-plots, their tragic romance playing out by proxy in the pages of an overblown sixties comic called, alternately, Ladies’ Special Dream Man, Throbbing Heart and Young Love.

Sarah’s ex-boyfriend, a menace kept conveniently just out of frame, (as is Doug’s mom) is almost certainly to blame for her disappearance. But we won’t find out exactly what happened till part three, if at all.

Other oddities abound: Doug and Sarah actually begin to morph. They sport the same shoulder length bob with bangs at different junctures in the story -- and then you notice that their faces are drawn the same. Keeping in mind Burns’ fabled meticulousness, there can be no unintended coincidences in a narrative as painstakingly executed as this.

Burns’ clean, highly refined style contributes to an unnerving reading experience when reconciled with the slippery, seething and roiling quality of a story as it’s taking place -- on multiple levels of consciousness, timeframes and planes of existence.

Visual motifs abound: eggs, streams, holes, self-portraits, passageways, incisions -- and thematic ones too: public mortification, pockmarked memory, gaps in time. The image of a flood, seen on his dad’s TV in X’ed Out, reappears in The Hive as a seething morass of puce-colored water. On the title page, Nitnit/Johnny 23 is poised on a rock in the middle of it. Later, Fat Doug rides his bed down it.

The slippage between inside and outside, dream and waking, me and you, past and present, extends even to the dead and the living – illustrated amusingly in the way the lurid foodstuffs in Nitnit land – a grub wrenched out of a rotting schwarma type thing, for example -- wriggle and snarl at you, even as you’re about to eat them.

Burns has incorporated any and all narrative strategies into this saga, in layers upon layers fanning out in all possible directions. We get photography as evidence, comic within a comic, punk cultural history, romance, drug trips, dreams, alternate universe and homage, all working together. For Burns, more is more. A strange thing to say about a 56-page document, but there it is.

The Hive is a “quick read,” obviously. You can get through it in 15 minutes if you have to. But why would you? We’ve got nothing but time till the next one comes out. Burns is making us slow down and savor this morsel of brilliance in a timeframe that starts to even out the ratio of writing time to reading time. If that’s vindication for an author -- one whose visual style incorporates thousands of beautiful hash marks, each tapered perfectly with a tiny brush -- then I’m all for it.

Part three is called “Sugar Skull.”



3 Responses to The Hive

  1. Ian Thomas says:

    Excellent review, Grace. I’m very excited to pick this up. The fantasy realm you describe, as depicted in X’ed Out, reminded me most of Cronenberg’s depiction of Interzone in Naked Lunch. The juxtaposition of that place, which is a place outside of time, I think, with the very specific time period in which the “reality” of the story takes place makes for a very queasy, unsettling experience because it really underscores the difference between fantasy and reality

    I think that can be said of the whole style of the book. Burns’ stark line-work creates borders where borders would not normally be registered. Even in depicting garbage, Burns takes care to draw each piece separately (that’s what I recall from X’ed Out, at least). Coupled with the vivid color, the sense of alienation in this is palpable.

  2. Tony says:

    It’s interesting you mention the “comic within a comic”, but isn’t actually a “comic within a comic within a comic”?

    First we have the familiar but weird romance comics that exist in Nitnit’s world. Familiar because they are drawn in the same style than the real vintage romance comics we all know, yet they’re printed in black and white instead of color and the text is written in some sort of oriental looking alphabet, which I don’t know for sure if it’s real (like Korean or something) or totally made up by Burns, but my money is on the latter.

    Then we see that Nitnit is nothing but a comic that Doug is reading in the real world. That’s only visible on page 7, where he’s holding “The Secret of the Hive” in his hands, a Tintin-style album. I think we can clearly infer that the contents of that comic are the scenes that happen in Nitnit’s world, scenes that we are reading in-between the scenes of Doug’s life in the real world.

    So there are 3 levels. We’re reading a comic wherein the main character is reading a comic titled “The Secret of Hive”, wherein people are reading b/w romance comics written in a weird looking alphabet. Admittedly, my last reading of “X’ed Out” was over 2 years ago and I don’t remember anything about it, so I might be missing something. (and I don’t have the book at hand to check it out).

    But for me the most striking comic-related thing happens at the end of the brief oneiric scene. Doug is dreaming that he is buying romance comics naked in the same flea market he visited in the real world, but the panels from the comics start to creep on him and get fragmented and transformed. And that’s when we see a couple of panels that feature explicit female nudity!

    Of course, that’s only possible in a dream because real romance comics could have never shown nudity. Another brilliant visual punch from Burns, who can create a perfect mimicry of those old real comics and then turn it on its head in a totally eerie way.

    At this point, I’m even starting to feel disappointed that this is gonna be a finite trilogy. I’m sure Burns can deliver a perfectly satisfactory 3rd and final installment, but at the same time I just wish he would continue producing exactly this kind of “Francobelgian album” every 2 years for the rest of his career. I mean, Hergé did 24 Tintins. Burns himself spent a lot of years in a sprawling narrative like Black Hole. Somehow, knowing the next album will be the last helping of this stuff starts to feel unnecessarily limited.

  3. Briany Najar says:

    Overall, so far, it’s a very compelling, enigmatic but engaging piece of work, but the way he draws those romance comics is truly knock-yer-socks-off flabbergasting. Choked me right up, those drawings did.
    The “Interzone” location mentioned above seems to relate to China-town as Burroughs’ Interzone does to Tangiers.

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